Browning radio station unites Blackfeet community

By Kristen Inbody
Browning, Montana (AP) June 2011

John Davis took a unique route to his badge of honor.

“I was the first Blackfeet to ever talk on this radio,” Davis said. “This is my coup story.”

Davis, a 21-year-old Blackfeet Community College student, is among the volunteers who have made FM 107.5 a force to be reckoned with in Browning.

In the Blackfeet language, the station is Ksistsikam ayikinaan. That translates to “voice from nowhere,” but you can call it Thunder Radio.

At 30-watts, the community radio station doesn’t reach too far beyond Browning, but its impact is growing.

“What I’ve heard is, it’s our own,” station manager Lona Burns said. “The Blackfeet people have our own accent so I guess they enjoy that it sounds like them.”

The DJs are preachers, teachers, students and others but have one important thing in common.

“Every single one has a positive outlook on life,” Burns said. “Their programs transform into positive energy for the listeners.”

The station went live on Nov. 20, 2010, with only three or four DJs. Programming was live only from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“People were excited so we raised the hours to 7 a.m. to midnight, Monday through Friday,” Burns said.

Now the station is live daily from 6 a.m. to midnight.

“They didn’t think people would be willing to volunteer,” Burns said.

Instead, after less than a year on the air, the station has a waiting list of those who want to be DJs.

“That radio has brought about a community energy,” Burns said.

The chamber, radio station and town are working together on an event at a date not yet set that will include pie eating and a radio talent contest.

“The radio station is the driving force in getting the community and entities working together,” Burns said. “Everyone has us in common because they come to us to get information out.”

In addition to a bevy of public service announcements and community bulletins, the station has promoted the importance of voting, especially among the young, and has hosted candidate forums.

“The apathy is so rampant in elections,” Burns said. “We’re pushing for people to go vote.”

Davis’s program is about more than music, although certainly music is key.

“Our big enemy is apathy,” he said.

Davis said for a long time community service carried a stigma.

“They thought of people in orange jumpsuits on the roadside,” he said. “Never before on this reservation has there been such a great energy of volunteerism.”

Davis is the voice behind the “Captain’s Love Boat Show” and pledges to “make love to your eardrums.”

He’s said listeners hear on-the-air jokes they would never hear on a Clear Channel Radio station, such as: “The captain is as cool as commodity cheese.”

The tag line – quoted around town – is a reference to part of the reservation culture, he said, and something Davis saw firsthand working at the commodities office.

“That was our prize asset. We had to watch the cheese,” he said.

When the station was replaying programming that originated elsewhere, the radio was all “tear in my beer” and “your cheatin’ heart.” They called it the suicide station for its depressing old country themes.

“I never thought I’d be hearing Marvin Gaye and AC/DC on 107,” Davis said.

The station’s next step is streaming online broadcasts.

“We have 16,000-plus members of the Blackfeet nation, but 30,000 with descendants and only 8,000 on the reservation,” Burns said. “We want to allow off-reservation members to learn the language, hear our program and get a little taste of home.”

The radio is a way to hear the Blackfeet language – and keep that language contemporary. Talented linguist Darrell R. Kipp, who uses his Blackfeet name Apiniokio Peta (Morning Eagle) on the show, broadcasts a mixture of language lessons and stories from elders.

The program helps “bring an ancient language into a very modern and electronic age, in keeping with the notion tribal languages are viable in the modern age, not icons of an ancient past,” he said.

“The radio is a good vehicle to keep the language viable,” Kipp said. “It gives the community an opportunity to listen to an hour of Blackfoot.”

The Ksistsikam ayikinaan radio program is broadcast on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays during the noon hour. A free booklet to go with the broadcast is available at the Piegan Institute or radio station.

“In the program, we play numerous recordings of our venerated older generation speaking the language. They might be telling stories, or, for example, one recording was Peter Red Horn, who has since passed on, reading the American Indian Civil Rights Act of 1958 in Blackfoot. We’ve had for the last six Sunday programs, the Gospel of John in Blackfoot.”

A Mother’s Day episode focused on Blackfeet words connected with mothers. Generally the Monday and Tuesday programs are focused on language instruction.

“If it’s raining, we do rain words,” Kipp said. “If it’s snowing, we do snow words. Today we’re doing terminology for months, weeks and time.”

Kipp said the radio program fits well with the Piegan Institute’s goals since its 1987 founding to keep the language active and revitalized.

The radio program “has been well received. I’ve had many individuals who have voiced they’re glad to hear the language again,” he said. “The language is in a fragile state, and it’s important the community keep it in a contemporary sense.”

Children are especially good at coming up with descriptive language for modern items such as iPods.

The language “has to be used to keep it dynamic, and to be viable it has to be spoken by children,” Kipp said.

A mantra in America has been to concentrate on English only and, especially at the turn of the century, to wipe out mother tongues, Kipp said. But the institute’s language emersion Cuts Wood school has found that its students do extremely well when they go to high school.

“It’s not necessary to sacrifice one language to another, and it’s simply less effective than to add another language on,” he said.